You believe in Tiberius, but you can’t believe in Jesus?

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

With Advent we have now begun the new liturgical year. Last year the key Gospel focus was that of Mark, this year it is the Gospel of Luke. I like the way our Lectionary has a different annual gospel focus because it ensures we cover all four canonical ways of considering the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Actually, ‘like’ is too superficial a word for what the compilers of the Lectionary intended by giving each gospel a year’s focus of attention. For, while it might seem they intended nothing more than a comprehensive consideration of all the gospels, they have also given us a chance to bear in mind the different approaches intended by each of the gospel writers. Were the very same four gospels to be considered in their entirety via a different approach over a four year cycle – perhaps following the life and ministry of Jesus chronologically, or perhaps even just a random meander through the whole corpus – we would lose the capacity to consider the metanarrative of each gospel writer. All four gospels report on the life and ministry of Jesus, but they do so through four different approaches and it is consideration of those distinct approaches that our Lectionary invites us to consider.

Over the past twelve months, at morning sermons I preached specifically on readings from Mark’s Gospel on five occasions (February 4 [on Mark 16:1-8]; February 25 [Mark 8:29], June 24 [Mark 4:35-41], August 5 [Mark 9:2-12] and October 21 [Mark 10:32-45]). In preparing those sermons I was mindful of a quote I used in the first of those five sermons from Kyle Harper who had lectured on Mark. Let me remind you what he said:

The reader loses meaning by cutting up and breaking down the text (of Mark’s gospel). (For) truly, in the gospel’s case, the whole is more than the sum of it parts.

He had gone on to say:

Therefore it is best to read each gospel individually as a narrative … (to find the) meaning, not only at the individual word or sentence, but also in the structure of the gospel as a whole.

It is with this in mind that I intend to approach lectionary readings from Luke’s gospel when I preach this coming year. So what is the meaning from the whole of his gospel that Luke intended us to find? With respect to Mark’s gospel, Kyle Harper had said that Mark’s purpose had been:

To convince his audience that the Messiah was actually a sacrifice that had been sent to suffer and die.

So what was Luke’s intent? Over the previous year, I have spoken a number of times about Mark’s brevity compared to the other three gospels. You may recall that in June I mentioned that Mark’s gospel is three quarters the length of that of John, 60% that of Matthew and only 58% that of Luke. Indeed, wherever Mark and Luke dealt with the same story, Luke always took much longer to tell it than Mark. The conclusion could be drawn that Luke was simply more prolix than Mark. But that would be unfair and incorrect. Nor should we conclude that Mark was too cryptic, that too would be unfair and incorrect; for each strove to convey different aspects of meaning from the very same stories by, not in spite of, their different ways of telling them.

In “An Introduction to the New Testament” D A Carson and Douglas J Moo wrote of Luke’s approach that:

We owe to Luke a good deal of our information about Jesus. His first two chapters, for example, tell us almost all we know about the birth of John the Baptist and most of what we know about the birth and boyhood of Jesus.

It is certainly the case that Luke referenced more verifiable historical information than the other gospel writers. And so it is that we may find the significant purpose behind Luke’s relating of the life and ministry of Jesus. He went to great length not only to tell us in broad brush terms about Jesus himself and many of the people he met but, in some instances, to go into almost micro-detail about those encounters. Take our reading this morning [Luke 2:41-52]. In summary, this was a kind of ‘Home Alone’ story where Jesus’ parents had forgotten him, leaving him at the Temple. Upon realising their mistake, they returned to find him engaged in deep conversation with the priests; his parents chided him and he put them wise. He returned home with them and from thenceforth was a good boy; and Mary never forgot the incident. There was both a lot of detail in this story and also the clear hand of a doting parent who must have related it many times over subsequent years for it to have come to Luke’s attention.

Parents tend to do that sort of thing and in the process doubtless exaggerate actual events. Listening to my mother tell others over the years about how she would often be stopped in the street by people wanting to see curly headed me in my pusher tended to imply that the journey home from the shops was a hazard of interruption. But at the heart of such loving parental overtell, there would have been a fact – somebody must have stopped her and tousled my hair. So too we can imagine with Jesus’ pre-adolescent proving of his maturity well beyond his years in holding his own against the best of the best at the Temple – there must have been something of the sort that had taken place.

This particular story is unique; it is the only one in the gospels that deals with the time between Jesus’ birth and the start of his ministry. It is a compelling story in its own right – here was a kid who was clearly going places. But at a simpler level, the story also lets us know that this person Jesus had not only been born, he had had a childhood. Maybe seemingly obvious, possibly unimportant – so why tell it? Apart from wanting to highlight just how special Jesus was, I believe that Luke was simply wanting to prove that Jesus really had existed and that the early years of this God made man were just like any human being – starting with a birth, followed by a childhood then a growing maturity and onto an adulthood.

Bishop John Dickson posted an intriguing tweet over the Christmas period. He referred to ‘proof’ by Dr Peter J Williams that the Emperor Tiberius never existed. Here is what Peter Williams had written in a series of tweets:

Clearly the Roman emperor Tiberius never existed. Busts of his head are obviously fakes. How can one person have different shaped heads? Coins with his picture are also fakes. How can one person have so many different shapes of nose? … Manuscript records about Tiberius in Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio only survive from the ninth century. Trusting them is clearly as irrational as taking someone today as a source for Robin Hood, Joan of Arc &c. The only supposedly contemporary writer, Velleius Paterculus, survives in manuscripts from the C16, after printing had been invented. This was probably based on a forgery by a clever Renaissance writer. You may as well believe in King Arthur. Anyway, Tacitus and Velleius Paterculus offer incompatible portraits of Tiberius, so their testimony cancels each other out. Clearly no-one really saw Tiberius. Probably the Roman empire was run by a powerful secret Collective who knew that the population would be more subservient if they believed they were ruled by a STRONG MAN. That’s why they invented Tiberius, so they could rule in his name. They also named places after him, like Tiberias. That was part of their plan to make him more believable. Inscriptions … mentioning things related to Tiberius were also produced at the behest of the Collective… Of course, the stonemasons just wrote the wording they were given. In order to explain why Tiberius never appeared in Rome, they came up with the brilliant idea that he spent most of his time in Capri … As for most of the people who supposedly saw Tiberius, the fake news of Tacitus conveniently explained how the majority got killed, so of course, even if they existed (not always certain) no one could ask them about the Tiberius they hadn’t seen. So believers in Tiberius, where’s your evidence? The burden of proof is clearly on those who believe such an unlikely figure existed.  [compilate of tweets from @DrPJWilliams]

Luke, in his gospel, didn’t leave us coins, busts or inscriptions, instead he provided much more detailed commentary on the life of an actual man (Jesus) than is found in the commentaries about the lives of many other people of his time – certainly much more than was ever written about Tiberius. And here we can find a key ‘purpose’ of Luke’s gospel on the life and ministry of someone called Jesus – he wanted to point out that this was no fictional character, no mythical superhero, but rather someone who had been flesh and bones. A superhero transcending would simply make for an engaging and even potentially memorable myth; but flesh and bones living, then dying and finally rising from the dead – this was truly a story of a totally different nature. Luke pursued the approach of an historian to make sure his readers understood that critical point – that there had been a real transcendence.

Contrasting this real transcendence against the idea that it may have been fiction, Greg Sheridan, writing in last weekend’s Weekend Australian, wrote:

Christmas certainly is a powerful season of joy, a time of happiness without parallel in any calendar. But without its religious message, without the transcendent reality that animates it, it is nothing more than a nice version of Game of Thrones. [Weekend Australian, 22/23 December 2018]

Later in the article he wrote:

You cannot come to any meaningful encounter with Christmas without comprehending its revolutionary, supernatural, transcendent, religious claims … every part of the Christian gospels is as transcendent of, or in a sense contradictory of, narrow materialism as the resurrection. Certainly this is true of Christmas. The gospel accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus are uncompromising.

Greg Sheridan’s article was entitled “Without transcendence, it’s just tinsel”- another way of reminding us to be certain of the reason for our own sense of Christmas let alone anyone else’s. The most recent time I preached at the morning services was on December 9. Under the title “Who stole Christmas?” I finished by saying:

As we want Christ to be the reason for the season, let us remember that sometimes the Christmas of Christians can be as Christ-less as that of any atheist. Christmas would be a comic character parody if we celebrated the birth of a man but ignored the commandment of God to love our neighbour as ourselves. To follow that commandment does take faith.

Do we believe that there was something special not just in the death and resurrection of Christ but also in his very birth? Or do we obscure the reality of his birth with metaphors of goodwill, joy and peace without understanding their true roots in the flesh and blood personhood of Emmanuel – God with us. This is a critical question; for it determines the nature of what each of us means when we say we are Christian.

December 25 is Christmas Day, the arbitrary selection of a date to focus on the fact that Jesus had been born; that the divine had come into human form. Boxing Day, December 26, is another arbitrary day inasmuch as the authors of the church calendar have denominated it as the day of St Stephen – the first Christian martyr, about whom Luke had written in the Acts of the Apostles (his sequel to his gospel) – read Chapters 6-8. I say arbitrary because we don’t actually know the day he died from stoning. Arbitrary it may be, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact of his death; just as the fact of Jesus’ birth matters, however arbitrary the date chosen to celebrate it.

Stephen had been stoned to death for his declaration of faith in Jesus and his avowal that Jesus, first man and then risen Christ, had been the fulfilment of Old Testament history and prophecy. Immediately after the stoning a rampage ensued, with zealots unleashing a persecution upon early believers. Saul, later to be known as Paul, was one of those leading the charge:

Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. [Acts 8:3]

Elsewhere we know that Paul himself admitted to being amongst those voting for the execution of some of the early believers (Acts 26:10), so it is reasonable to assume that he was complicit in the death sentence handed down on Stephen; we certainly know he was there at the execution (7:58). Then, on the way to Damascus, Saul encountered the risen Jesus. From that moment on, Saul, now Paul, devoted his life to ensuring everyone he met would not only know of the risen Jesus but of the man amongst us that he had been before his crucifixion. Our reading from Colossians this morning highlighted Paul’s approach first to Jesus made man:

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. [3:13]

Jesus, he who had been born amongst us, as he lay nailed to a cross dying called out to his Father: “Forgive them.” Then, to Jesus risen, exhorting us to follow the Son of God:

Whatever you do, whether word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. [3:17]

Luke was a companion of Paul’s through much of the latter’s journeyings – we know this from the frequent reference to ‘we’ in descriptions of Paul’s doings, the other person of the plural pronoun being the author of the book – Luke himself. Thus we can be certain that Luke and Paul, as they journeyed on land and sea, would have talked much about the events that Paul had witnessed – his own conversion and his testimony to the faith unto death of Stephen amongst others. Importantly he would have heard from Paul how the historicity of Jesus was integral to his divinity.

I’ll let you make up your own mind about Tiberius; I for one am prepared to believe he existed. But I ask you to take seriously the underlying premise of Luke’s gospel that this Jesus whose birth we have just celebrated truly did come among us; and Luke wanted the story of Jesus’ life not to be just sweetly appealing but intensely compelling, so that it would become life-changing for each of us.